Sunday, February 28, 2010

Fragile Moments: The Emotional Precision in O Thiam Chin’s Never Been Better


Never Been Better
O Thiam Chin
(MPH Publishing, 2009, 242pp)

O THIAM CHIN’s second collection of stories is set primarily in the town of Ang Mo Kio, Singapore, and follows people whose lives do not intersect but whose dreams do; people bound by their shared human longings, griefs and discoveries. O takes us into the lives of people who might never speak to one another but might spend years shopping in the same market, buying the same brand of oranges—who might even be lost in the same dreams.

O’s great gift is presenting universal themes of grief and loss minutely rendered within very specific environments and very strong (and sometimes oppressive) families. In one of the earlier stories in his collection, “Moth,” O demonstrates this gift by creating a sense of interchangeability among the characters while at the same time maintaining a very specific sense of place. O describes the setting in vivid detail, naming the Paya Lebar MRT subway stop and the lalang stalks, while he leaves the two central characters, the narrator and his cousin, unnamed.

The dream-like quality of “Moth” likewise heightens the sense of interchangeability and cyclicality associated with the characters. The narrator states that “memory is such a pliable, slippery thing that it changes its nature each time you bring it up in your head afresh,” and the story is pushed forward less by action and more by the memories that the action triggers. The narrator’s task is to look after his young cousin, who is coming to terms with own father’s illness and death. However, playing “big brother” to his cousin reminds him of the loss of his real brother, who was sold off at a young age. The fusion and interchangeability of the characters is represented well by a moth fluttering into the apartment where the narrator is caring for his cousin. O describes the moth as “instinctively attracted to the death scent of the recently deceased,” the lingering soul. The momentary, fragile nature of the insect has the same texture as the narrator’s memories of his mother and brother. Both are there and then gone, just as the narrator’s young cousin is “for a fleeting moment … a young boy seemingly untouched by grief or loss.” O is serious but never heavy-handed; the repetition of sad themes feels inevitable but also creates the expectation that the cycle will eventually finish with some measure of hope.

Although the stories in Never Been Better explore similar themes, each piece feels original. The recurring motifs in O’s work include grief, sexual awakening and Chinese mythology or folklore. There is a danger of too much repetition here, but in each story the same motifs are brought together in singular characters. Each piece also includes at least one technique that is a significant departure from the stories that came before it. For instance, most of O’s tales are written in ruminating, first-person or third-person narration focalized around one main character. However, in “Peach” the point-of-view character is silent, and listens to the main character, who is his grandmother. This listener uses the smallest references to create the frame to the story: “It was a very scary thought, my grandmother said, putting the joss sticks into the ceramic urn in front of my grandfather’s black-and-white portrait, to know that we were doing it for real, that this was the right thing to do.” This one sentence is the only time we see the vantage point of the silent narrator, for whom the joss sticks, the portrait, the sound of the grandmother become a memory, as does the story itself. At the same time, the retrospective character of the narrator allows the grandmother to have a great deal of insight into herself. At one point in the story the grandmother relates a dream in which she is threatened by the Monkey King, who menaces her with his “bobbing manhood,” which “made [her] feel strange, as if [she] were initiated into an unknown world, where being a woman was a vulnerability and a weapon at the same time.” Much of this tale is yarn-like, but her aside imparts a sense of gravity to the story. With it, we understand the sense of selfhood that leads her to marry the man of her choosing and to leave her small town even though it represents everything she has ever known.

The title of the collection, Never Been Better, comes from the first story in O’s collection, but I felt the full meaning of the phrase in his last story, “Silence.” “Silence” is a 40-page piece that shows O’s ability to follow his characters into their most painful interior spaces and bring them out. This story centers on a woman who has lost her sister, Lee Fen, to suicide. Lee Fen travels the world in search of love, while the narrator stays in Singapore and wonders what she is missing. Their conflict is predicated on the narrator’s own discomfort with her sexuality, and it is implicit that the sister’s suicide is linked to the narrator’s romantic involvement with Lee Fen’s girlfriend. However, although the story seems to build towards a flashback of this dramatic scene, O deftly chooses not include it. The exclusion of the suicide from the narrative refects the narrator’s own repression of the event.

For the narrator, it is a secondary character, Priscilla, who represents another chance at healing. At the end of the story, the narrator has a cathartic moment when she sees Lee Fen in a dream. The melodrama is high, but O softens and deepens the moment by having Priscilla rationalize it. When the narrator asks why anyone would have a vision like this, Priscilla answers, “Maybe it’s because we wanted it so badly, we would die for it.” As the narrator gradually accepts her sister’s death, she allows herself to accept her own way of loving. There is no guarantee that the love is requited, but this small flash of hope at the end is very much like the smile on the boy’s face at the end of “Moth”: after all of this is over, there is the chance for something better.

O is a talented writer who has a great gift for writing about the Hokkien-speaking Chinese Singaporeans within the neighborhood of Ang Mo Kio. In “Moth” the narrator’s bus ride through the neighborhood is just as important as the Chinese mythology within the piece. In “Silence” the comfortable way a young woman wrings water out of her hair is as revealing as her cathartic dream at the end. O writes about people with very different concerns, and he is able to write about them confidently because he has taken the time to understand and evoke their environment.

MOIRA MOODY, originally from Philadelphia, is an MFA student at Rutgers University in Newark, where she writes fiction and teaches Composition. She previously studied at the University of Pennsylvania, earning her B.A. in English Literature in 2006. Her fiction, poetry and essays have appeared in The Battered Suitcase, The Pennsylvania Gazette and The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Reproduced from the February 2010 issue of Cha: An Asian Literary Journal

Friday, February 26, 2010

Having the Write Stuff

Talent and hard work are the ingredients for a novelist’s success

YOU don’t become an award-winning author without having a flair for words, and London-based ARDASHIR VAKIL is certainly a good example of that. His impeccable sentences, tinged with the lilting accent that reveals his Mumbai origins, sound like they are plucked from a book.

Not surprising, as words and sentences are kind of an obsession of his, particularly when it comes to writing. And he certainly doesn’t mince his words. “So many writers are lauded for writing a good page-turner, but I care massively about how each sentence in a story is written. I pay a lot of attention to the strength of the sentence, both in my own works and the books I read. If I read a page of bad writing, I can’t read the book,” Ardashir says. “The sentence is a microcosm of a story, and a book should be judged sentence by sentence. Look at the works of Raymond Carver or Haruki Murakami—you’re delighted just reading the first page. It’s not at all about turning to the next page!”

Understandably, Ardashir lists authors like J.D. Salinger and R.K. Narayan as his inspirations. “I’m also drawn to books like Haruki Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and the Some Hope trilogy by Edward St Aubyn,” he adds.

His own books also exhibit his love for the written word and attention to detail. His first novel, Beach Boy, charts the adventures of eight-year-old Cyrus Readymoney in 1970s’ Bombay, capturing the nuances and sensory experiences of his life vividly. The book was translated into eight languages, was shortlisted for the 1997 Whitbread First Novel Award, and won a Betty Trask Award. His second novel, One Day, is set in North London and explores a married couple’s troubled relationship by looking at one day in their lives. Published in 2003, it was shortlisted for the Encore Award.

Ardashir, who was in Kuala Lumpur recently to conduct a series of creative writing workshops known as City of Stories (jointly organised by the British Council, MPH, and London-based Spread the Word), explains that his two books are completely different from each other, both stylistically and thematically. He describes Beach Boy as similar to The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger; it is a coming-of-age story with many autobiographical elements, written in what he calls a rambling, relaxed manner (“Though I put a lot of work into making it like that!” he points out.). One Day, however, employs a denser and layered style, he says, likening the book to Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates (which was recently made into a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet).

“I can’t do the same thing twice. Now, I’m working on a historical novel set in Mumbai, spanning over 50 years. It isn’t a good thing for the publishers, though, because they like knowing what to expect from a particular author!” he laughs.

Ardashir’s journey to becoming a published author is a rather unconventional one. Born in Mumbai in 1962 to a Parsi family, he was educated in the prestigious Doon School in Dehradun before moving on to study English at Cambridge University. He then took up a teaching degree and began teaching English at several schools in London. At that time, he was a member of a writing group that shared their work with one another and, in 1995, they decided to compile an anthology of their writings. As luck would have it, publisher Penguin Books noticed Ardashir’s story in the anthology and asked him if he could write something more, which eventually became Beach Boy.

Ardashir however, doesn’t credit Lady Luck. “I don’t think it has anything to do with luck; it’s to do with whether you’re good or not,” he says with sly smile, already knowing that he’s at risk of sounding somewhat conceited. “Once, I received an offer by a Greek publisher to translate my novel, and someone told me I was lucky to get it. And I replied, as modestly as I could, that some would say they were the lucky ones to have me!”

The reason for his self-assuredness, however, is knowing what it takes to become a successful novelist. This is further enhanced by his current job teaching creative writing at Goldsmiths, University of London. “There is a clear line between those who have some talent (as writers) and those who don’t, and only a tiny number of people have it,” he says. He emphasises, however, that one does not become a successful author based on writing talent alone. “There is an important second talent that is also needed, and that is to be able to work hard. When you make it as a writer, it brings you only a pinprick of fame, but behind it is all the perspiration and hard work you put in.”

He explains that many people have romantic notions on how authors write, imagining that they sit in idyllic spots and are inspired to pour out words. “The truth is, 95 per cent of writers hate writing! And it’s probably easier to do it in a drab room where there are fewer distractions. At the very basic level, it is a job, and you have to come back to your desk to write. The challenge is that you have to discipline and motivate yourself to do it on your own, because you don’t have a boss telling you what to do,” he says. “I do believe, however, that everyone has something to say and, as a creative writing teacher, that’s what I teach. Everybody who would like to write, can write something.”

Malaysia, he feels, is ripe for introduction to the literary world. “There is definitely space in literature for new cultures and spaces; in fact, there is a hunger for it. That is what Malaysia has to offer. “I think you have really fascinating culture, history and geography. I read about it before coming in Tash Aw’s The Harmony Silk Factory, and got to experience it firsthand in both Penang and Kuala Lumpur. There is so much to show about this country. “Hopefully, someone like Aw can open the door for more Malaysian writers,” he says.

Reproduced from the Star of February 26, 2010

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Dashing Tash


TASH AW is Malaysia’s most successful author to date. The Perak native’s début novel The Harmony Silk Factory won the Whitbread Prize in 2005 and the plaudits have been pouring in ever since. It’s a mesmerizing tale set before WWII with three narrators describing a road trip through Perak which culminates in a boat trip to some fictional islands. The mosaic of Malaysian society is sketched out with some sensitivity as is rural Perak, Kinta Valley, complete with sleepy kampongs and rutted, red, clay tracks through the jungle. Aw captures three distinct voices with crystal clarity and these overlap in an ingenious way. It’s a tale that’s hard not to get caught up in and round the world it’s switching people on to the multiple charms of this most beguiling of countries.

Aw is now based in London but was in Malaysia in June as part of his round the world book promotion tour. His second book, Map of the Invisible World, is out now. He somehow found time in his busy schedule to talk with The Expat. His maternal grandmother and father live in Batu Gajah and Aw, now 30-something, spent a lot of time in and around the small town as he grew up.

“The towns in that area are small but they are historically very wealthy, even though much of the actual wealth has gone. They still have beautiful stucco-fronted colonial shophouses and you don’t have that in other states, it’s very atmospheric. They have a quality—the carpentry, the paint work, you can feel how it was a very rich state.” It’s this clear adoration that pours out in The Harmony Silk Factory. “If you look at Kuala Kangsar Palace, it’s heartbreakingly beautiful,” he implores. It’s infectious and will have the reader eager to go experience the area for him- or herself.

Tash was born in Taipei, grew up in Malaysia, mostly Perak, he studied in the UK and now lives in Islington, North London. He’s a trained lawyer but with his second book in stores he is now a fully fledged author signed to HarperCollins, one of the world’s biggest publishers.

A most genteel chap, Aw captures “faded grandeur” exquisitely, though some have said he has something of a quaint take on modern Malaysia: “I think Malaysia is still at heart a rural society and I don’t mean that in a pejorative way. Malaysians are by nature very relaxed, we have a strong attachment to the countryside, the big growth of the cities is associated with a certain melancholy.” It’s something he feels quite strongly about and a view that has not endeared him to some local commentators. “When I grew up in KL in the 1970s and ’80s it was like a big village, people were very relaxed, you’d dump your car anywhere and go and eat. I don’t think Malaysian people are comfortable in big cities like this, we don’t do it naturally, not like Singapore or Hong Kong.” The Harmony Silk Factory is a lovely novel and it will make a great film full of rich textures. It’s a simple yet unfathomably complex story and the real star of the book is rural Malaysia.

His follow-up, Map of the Invisible World, is actually a superior novel. Set in Suharto’s Indonesia in 1965 and the “Year of Living Dangerously” it’s ambitious. There are a number of threads but Aw pulls it off, interweaving plotlines and generating within the reader genuine sympathy for each of the characters. Brotherly love, first love, the abyss between wealth and poverty and adoptive family are explored. There’s an air of menace and chaos throughout, some unforgettable set pieces and it’s a tremendously satisfying read.

His first book took Tash six years to write, he was working most of the time. “It wasn’t a hobby, I wanted to be a writer but once it was published my productivity levels plunged. I was exhausted.” The second came more quickly and was published three years later.

Regarding Jakarta where much of Map of the Invisible World is set, he says: “Underneath all that chaos there’s a rhythm and once you’re plugged into that it’s really easy, Indonesians are very friendly, they are a very expressive people, not as conservative as Malaysians.”

Tash is heartened by the recent emergence of a crop of Malaysian writers. “My generation, in our 30s, is really the first to have placed an enormous amount of importance on reading and writing. It’s indicative that the education system has done something right.”

What it will mean for the country to have people on Tokyo’s metro, the buses of Edinburgh and Californian beaches pouring over the work of contemporary Malaysian novelists remains to be seen. It seems unlikely to be negative.

Reproduced from the September 2008 issue of The Expat magazine

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction Shortlist

BARBARA KINGSOLVER’s historical novel, The Lacuna (Harper, 2009), Lorraine M. López’s Homicide Survivors Picnic and Other Stories (BkMk Press, 2009), Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs (Knopf, 2009), Alexie Sherman’s tragicomic medley of stories, prose and poems, War Dances (Grove/Atlantic, 2009) and Colson Whitehead’s Sag Harbor (Doubleday, 2009) have been shortlisted for the prestigious 2010 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, it was announced on February 23, 2010 (Tuesday). There are three novels and two short-story collections.

The PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction is America’s largest peer-juried prize for fiction (both novels and short-story collections). The judges for this year are Al Young, Rilla Askew and Kyoko Mori.

Joseph O’Neill’s tale of cricket and camaraderie in post-9/11 New York City, Netherland (Knopf, 2008), won the prize in 2009.

The winner of the 2010 award will be announced on March 23, 2010.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


Here is an updated version of an interview published in the October-December 2008 issue of Quill magazine

ERIC FORBES and TAN MAY LEE talk with CLARE WIGFALL about her first book, The Loudest Sound and Nothing, a collection of stories

CLARE WIGFALL’s début collection of disturbing and darkly provocative stories demonstrates that the form is alive and well.

Wigfall was born in Greenwich, London, in 1976. She grew up in Berkeley (California) and London. She lived in Prague for some time, and now lives in Berlin, doing face-painting for children to support her passion of writing short stories. Her début, The Loudest Sound and Nothing (Faber & Faber, 2007), showcases a collection of stories that have been featured in magazines as early as 1997. It was longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. The first story in the collection, “Numbers,” was set in Outer Hebrides and is the only story written in the Gaelic vernacular, also using digits to depict a girl’s obsession with numbers and how they “lend a logic to the world.” “Numbers” won the 2008 BBC National Short Story Award, with two-time Whitbread Prize-winner Jane Gardam a close runner-up. (Gardam won for her short story, “The People on Privilege Hill,” from a collection of the same name.) The other writers on the shortlist included Adam Thorpe (“The Names”), Richard Beard (“Guidelines for Measures to Cope with Disgraceful and Other Events”) and Erin Soros (“Surge”). Wigfall received £15,000 for the story—the largest award in the world for a single short story.

According to the chair of the judging panel, broadcaster and writer Martha Kearnsey, “It’s exciting that a relatively unknown voice, in fact the youngest writer on our shortlist, has distinguished herself amongst some very well-known authors as a leading talent in the world of storytelling. Clare’s evocation of superstition and frustrated lives on a remote Scottish island is an act of historical ventriloquism. She shows just what the short story can achieve, conjuring up a whole world in microcosm. The strength of our shortlist ranging from the gothic to the comic demonstrates that the short story is alive and well, the perfect art form for a time-hungry age.”

We began corresponding with Wigfall way before she was longlisted for the 2008 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. Saying that the short story is a subject close to her heart is an understatement. In an article she wrote for a website, she talks about her love of reading and writing short stories: “I have known that junkie craving one can feel as you work your way through a brilliant collection, aching for the next 15-minute or half-hour slot of time when you can sit down and read a story through in one sitting, hitting the high with its conclusion and feeling the effects long after you’ve left the story behind.”

She is now working on a novel and a new collection of stories.

The British author spoke to us in an e-mail interview from her new home in Berlin, Germany, where she lives with her husband Troy Giunipero and their baby daughter Elsa Rowan.

How familiar are you with the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award?
More familiar than most people, perhaps. I had the honour of being invited to read at the 2007 Frank O’Connor Short Story Festival in Cork, Ireland, where they award the prize each year. My collection had only been released the previous week and it was one of my first public readings—I was absolutely terrified and giddy with excitement in equal measure! I had an extraordinary time. I was struck by how dearly Ireland holds the short story in high regard, even though perhaps this shouldn’t have surprised me because Ireland is a nation of born storytellers (just spend a night in an Irish pub and you’ll see what I mean!). It was a thrill to be amongst people who loved and respected the short-story form—that felt very special. The award is still young, but each year it’s growing in international renown and I think that’s wonderful and important as it’s angling a spotlight on a literary form which deserves more of the world’s attention.

Because the Frank O’Connor committee decided to award Jhumpa Lahiri the prize and bypassed the shortlist, did winning the BBC National Short Story Award with the first story in your collection make up for this decision?
The Loudest Sound and Nothing is only my first book and I’m still a young writer, so to even be nominated for either of these high-profile awards, where the calibre of the other entrants was so high and their careers so well established, in itself felt like an achievement worth celebrating. Of course, you hope the judges might like your work, but I certainly wasn’t holding my breath. When it was announced that the BBC judges had chosen to give my story the award, I was totally overwhelmed.

How pleased were you with the BBC National Short Story Award of £15,000—the largest award in the world for a single short story? What will you do with it?
The prize money is indeed a godsend. It will afford me the luxury of being able to write full-time. So, dull as it might sound, I’m afraid I’m going to be very sensible and eke out the money carefully so that it can keep paying the bills for as long as possible. However, I did allow myself one treat though: I bought a bicycle. Everyone in Berlin cycles and I’ve been longing to join them.

What is the difference between writing short stories and full-length novels?
I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s much more difficult to write a good short story than it is to write a novel, but I haven’t written a novel yet so I’m not sure if this is true. Certainly writing a short story presents its own specific challenges. One aspect I appreciate is the economy of the form; the story must create a world, a mood, a plot, wholly-real characters, an exploration of life and its complexities, and all within the space of only a few pages. There’s something almost beautifully mathematical and precise about it, and what you leave out is as important as what you leave in. For that reason, I suppose in a way your safety net is taken away, because when you write a short story you’re relying on an unknown quantity: your reader. With a novel you have the space to fill in all the gaps, with a short story you’re forced to leave these for your reader to complete—the difficulty for the author is getting the balance perfectly right, creating something that will satisfy. This is probably what makes short stories—when they’re written well—such an intellectually demanding form of literature, and I suspect is why so many readers shun them. Those who like to stretch their minds and imaginations when they read often feel passionately about the form. A great short story may be brief, but it demands and relies upon personal investment from the reader. I believe this is why the very best short stories can haunt you long after you’ve read the concluding line, because so much of the experience is not just about the words on the page, but is individual to you and the way your own brain interprets and digests what you’ve read. There’s something magical about that.

Short stories appear to be getting more popular. What are your thoughts on this?
Yes, it’s an odd phenomenon, and a pleasing one—it does seem that readers are growing more interested in short stories. There’s been much in the British press recently about how short stories are coming back in vogue. Simon Prosser, an editor at Hamish Hamilton, has even gone so far as to say that the short-story form is “better suited to the demands of modern life than the novel.” Perhaps he’s right. When our time is so much in demand, there’s something very satisfying about how well short stories can fit into our busy lives. You can read one on the commute to work, in bed before you turn out the light, as you wait in a doctor’s office, you can even download them from the internet and listen to them as podcasts (the PRI’s Selected Shorts or The New Yorker story podcasts are some of my favourites), and somehow because a story can be enjoyed in its entirety in this time slot it feels like the time has really been used to its full. The increase in high-profile novelists releasing story collections is definitely positive as it helps to introduce new readers to the form, and increases public respect for it, but I do wish publishers would take more risks with debut story writers. It’s still very difficult to succeed as a young writer if you’re writing short stories. But as the renown of prizes like the Frank O’Connor increases this will definitely help as it offers publishers much-needed exposure for their new writers, so I’m hopeful that slowly, slowly things are changing.

What is your favourite short story or short-story collection?
This is a tough question. I’m afraid I’m not very good at picking favourites. I love J.D. Salinger’s stories—I’ve read all but one: “Teddy.” I want to save that one because I know that once I’ve read it I might never again have the pleasure of reading something by Salinger that is totally new to me. But there are so many other short-story writers I love and look up to, such as Alice Munro, Claire Keegan, Raymond Carver and Ernest Hemingway, and I always recommend people to read Truman Capote’s stories—they haven’t received the attention of his longer works, but they’re brilliant.

Aside from winning literary prizes and selling many copies of a book, how do you know that you’ve written a brilliant story?
I’m always filled with self-doubt when I finish a story, and am constantly reading other authors whose work convinces me that even when I do my best, I’ve still got a lot to strive for. But when a reader tells you they loved one of your stories, or that it has moved them, or gripped them, or given them a window into another world, or made them think about their own life, well, then you begin to give your story a little more credit, because you know that it’s given something to the lives of others.

Publishers find short-story collections hard to sell? Why do you think this is so? What can we do to make people buy or read more of such collections?
I believe the main problem is that short-story collections rarely receive the kind of exposure necessary to achieve strong sales or recognition. There are a myriad number of reasons why this is the case, but I also think that too often short stories are marginalised, deemed to be of minority appeal and therefore marketed as such, so it’s no surprise that they sell poorly. The irony is that when a collection does receive the kind of high-profile media attention and in-store promotion usually reserved for the novel, its sales can be comparably strong; look at the success of Jhumpa Lahiri’s two collections, Interpreter of Maladies and Unaccustomed Earth, for instance—they’ve achieved phenomenal sales, deservedly so, and totally disprove any notion that short stories can’t be popular. If the writing is of exceptional quality, there is clearly a large audience out there who aren’t put off by it taking the form of stories. So why does the myth prevail that people won’t buy short-story collections? People don’t buy them because they don’t hear about them; I suspect it’s as simple as that. I know it’s a many-layered problem, and you can point the finger of blame in a number of directions, but I think that if publishers really want to start seeing a change, then they must stop being defeatist and start taking more risks. If they truly believe in a writer, whether they’re writing stories or novels or something else entirely shouldn’t be of consequence. This is a great book, they should be telling us, this is writing you must read. If they shout loud enough, I think people will start to listen.

Will you come visit us in Kuala Lumpur?
Faber & Faber have asked me to write two more books for them: a novel and another collection of stories. You might be surprised to learn that the novel is set in British Malaya. It will be fictional, but is loosely based on the story of my grandmother who grew up in Penang and about her mother who left her when she was a small baby. I am very excited to say that in order to research the novel I am coming to Malaysia in March 2010, together with my baby daughter Elsa Rowan and my husband. I am still piecing together our travel plans, but we intend to visit Kuala Lumpur at some point during the trip and I hope I might have the opportunity to finally meet the both two of you as well as other book lovers.

I still can’t quite believe we are making the trip—Berlin is still cloaked under what seems to be a never-ending layer of ice and snow. Will spring never come? It will really be surreal to arrive in Malaysia with its tropical climate! Just yesterday I was talking with my husband and saying I wonder what my grandmother would think to know her granddaughter and great-granddaughter are now tracing her footsteps.

Isn’t it funny that having come into contact with you almost by chance a couple of years ago [in September 2007], I now have the opportunity to visit Malaysia and meet you?

I can’t believe we are leaving soon. This morning I woke up and realised that this time next week we’d be in Kuala Lumpur and I would be doing the reading! And it is still snowing outside! It’s minus 4 degrees tonight here in Berlin. It really is the longest winter ever. I was just out walking our dog and shivering, hardly able to believe that in just a few days we’ll no doubt be sweating. I am very much looking forward to meeting you all soon; I feel like you’re all old friends already!

ERIC FORBES is a senior book editor with MPH Group Publishing in Kuala Lumpur. After reading economics for a degree, which he didn’t particularly enjoy but somehow endured, he had a succession of jobs before joining the publishing industry. He has been in bookselling and publishing for over 20 years now. He can’t imagine doing anything else. He is a contributing editor to Quill magazine.

TAN MAY LEE graduated from the University of Leeds, United Kingdom, where she was awarded the Bonamy Dobree Scholarship for International Students to do her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Language. She also trained as a Master Practitioner in Neuro-Semantics Neuro-Linguistic Programming. She is the editor of Quill magazine.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


IN OCTOBER 2009, the Australian Book Review (ABR) conducted a poll amongst its readers to determine their favourite AUSTRALIAN NOVELS. Altogether, some 290 novels were nominated. The results of the poll are in the February 2010 issue of the magazine. The top ten novels are as follows:

1. Cloudstreet / Tim Winton
2. The Fortunes of Richard Mahony / Henry Handel Richardson
3. Voss / Patrick White
4. Breath / Tim Winton
5. Oscar and Lucinda / Peter Carey
6. My Brother Jack / George Johnston
7. The Secret River / Kate Grenville
8. Eucalyptus / Murray Bail
9. The Man Who Loved Children / Christina Stead
10. The Tree of Man / Patrick White

Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, first published in 1991, was the overwhelming favourite, followed by Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony, which was closely followed by Patrick White’s Voss and Winton’s most recent novel, Breath. I am familiar with all the novels except for Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony and George Johnston’s My Brother Jack.

Friday, February 19, 2010

2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize: Regional Shortlists

THOSE SHORTLISTED for Best Book include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Peter Carey, Amit Chaudhuri, J.M. Coetzee, Michael Crummey, Rana Dasgupta, Charlotte Grimshaw, Aamer Hussein, Nada Awar Jarrar, Thomas Keneally, Annabel Lyon, Anne Michaels, Lisa Moore, Daniyal Mueenuddin, amongst others. Those shortlisted for Best First Book include Chandrahas Choudhury, Francesca Kay, Shandi Mitchell, Daniyal Mueenuddin, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, Nii Ayikwei Parkes, Evie Wyld, amongst others.

Here’s the complete list of books shortlisted for the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize:

Caribbean and Canada
Best Book
1. Galore / Michael Crummey (Canada)
2. Euphoria / Connie Gault (Canada)
3. The Golden Mean / Annabel Lyon (Canada)
4. The Winter Vault / Anne Michaels (Canada)
5. February / Lisa Moore (Canada)
6. Goya’s Dog / Damian Tarnopolsky (Canada)

Best First Book
1. Amphibian / Carla Gunn (Canada)
2. Under This Unbroken Sky / Shandi Mitchell (Canada)
3. The Island Quintet: Five Stories / Raymond Ramchartiar (Trinidad)
4. Diary of Interrupted Days / Dragan Todorovic (Canada)
5. The Briss / Michael Tregebov (Canada)
6. Daniel O’Thunder / Ian Weir (Canada)

Best Book
1. The Thing Around Your Neck / Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (Nigeria)
2. Kings of the Water / Mark Behr (South Africa)
3. Refuge / Andrew Brown (South Africa)
4. Trespass / Dawn Garisch (South Africa)
5. Tsamma Season / Rosemund Handler (South Africa)
6. The Double Crown / Marié Heese (South Africa)
7. Eyo / Abidemi Sanusi (Nigeria)

Best First Book
1. Harmattan Rain / Aysha Harunna Attah (Ghana)
2. Jelly Dog Days / Erica Emdon (South Africa)
3. Sleepers Wake / Alistair Morgan (South Africa)
4. Come Sunday / Isla Morley (South Africa)
5. I Do Not Come to You by Chance / Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani (Nigeria)
6. The Shadow of a Smile / Kachi Ozumba (Nigeria)
7. The Shape of Him / Gill Schierhout (South Africa)

South Asia and Europe
Best Book
1. Heartland / Anthony Cartwright (Britain)
2. The Immortals / Amit Chaudhuri (India)
3. For Pepper and Christ / Keki Daruwalla (India)
4. Solo / Rana Dasgupta (Britain)
5. Another Gulmohar Tree / Aamer Hussein (Pakistan)
6. The Beijing of Possibilities / Jonathan Tel (Britain)

Best First Book
1. The Hungry Ghosts / Anne Berry (Britain)
2. Arzee the Dwarf / Chandrahas Choudhury (India)
3. An Equal Stillness / Francesca Kay (Britain)
4. In Other Rooms, Other Wonders / Daniyal Mueenuddin (Pakistan)
5. Among Thieves / Mez Packer (Britain)
6. Tail of the Blue Bird / Nii Ayikwei Parkes (Britain)

Southeast Asia and Pacific
Best Book
1. Parrot and Oliver in America / Peter Carey (Australia)
2. Summertime / J.M. Coetzee (Australia)
3. Singularity / Charlotte Grimshaw (New Zealand)
4. A Good Land / Nada Awar Jarrar (Australia)
5. The People’s Train / Thomas Keneally (Australia)
6. The Adventures of Vela / Albert Wendt (Samoa)

Best First Book
1. Siddon Rock / Glenda Guest (Australia)
2. Look Who’s Morphing / Tom Cho (Australia)
3. Document Z / Andrew Croome (Australia)
4. Come Inside / Glenys Osborne (Australia)
5. The Ice Age / Kirsten Reed (Australia)
6. After the Fire, a Still Small Voice / Evie Wyld (Australia)

The regional winners will be announced on April 7, 2010, while the overall winners will be announced in Delhi, India, on April 12, 2010.

Thursday, February 18, 2010


I JUST DISCOVERED an interesting literary website. The new site is managed by Nicola Barranger, a former BBC radio producer who now interviews writers and other creative artists for the site. You may listen to or view her interviews at If you enjoy listening to the opinions of others, especially authors, playwrights, directors and other creative artists in Britain and elsewhere, you will definitely enjoy browsing this website. There are interviews with Alaa al Aswany, Justin Cartwright, Amanda Craig, Sarah Dunant, Margaret Forster, Mohammed Hanif, Sadie Jones, Penelope Lively, Ruth Rendell, Kamila Shamsie, Kate Summerscale and others.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

What I Found at ... Kinokuniya KLCC